Cosmetic chemicals need a makeover
Every morning millions of people — primarily women — start their day with makeup. They smooth their complexion with foundation, define their lips with lipstick and enhance their eyelashes with mascara. In doing so, they may be slathering Teflon and other harmful “forever chemicals” all over their faces.
In a newly published study, scientists from the University of Notre Dame and other universities in collaboration with our institute, the Green Science Policy Institute, found high fluorine levels — indicating the probable presence of harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — in most waterproof mascara, liquid lipsticks and foundations tested. Some of the products with the highest fluorine levels underwent further analysis and all contained at least four PFAS of concern. The kicker? Few of these products had any PFAS listed on the label.
PFAS are among the most problematic classes of chemicals in use. Of the small fraction that have been tested for toxicity, most have been linked to health harms. These problems include cancer, infertility, thyroid disease, reduced vaccine effectiveness and even more severe COVID-19 outcomes.
And all PFAS are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into other extremely persistent PFAS. As a result, these chemicals are contaminating the drinking water of tens of millions, and could plague our water systems and environment for generations to come.
Their massive and enduring potential for harm motivates leading scientists and us to recommend that the entire class of PFAS should be avoided for all nonessential uses.
PFAS appears to be used in makeup primarily to be able to market products as “waterproof,” “wear-resistant,” or “long-lasting.” Even if PFAS were the only ingredients that could confer these properties, avoiding runny mascara or smudged lipstick isn’t worth an increased risk of cancer or obesity.
However, the use of PFAS in makeup is certainly not necessary, and any function it might serve is far outweighed by the potential for harm. PFAS in makeup may be absorbed through the skin or tear ducts, and even eaten — lipstick wearers ingest up to several pounds of lipstick in their lifetimes.
And makeup with PFAS can injure more than just the people wearing it. These chemicals can make their way into our drinking water, air and food during the manufacture of makeup and after it’s washed down the drain. Workers and surrounding communities during production and disposal are vulnerable.
You may wonder how such troublesome chemicals are allowed in products we put on our skin, eyelashes and lips. Unlike food, chemicals in makeup and personal care products are almost entirely unregulated in the U.S. and Canada. On top of being permitted in makeup when they clearly shouldn’t, weak labelling requirements mean that PFAS may not even be listed on the label. In fact, almost none of the products we confirmed to contain PFAS had any directly listed on the label. That means that even consumers who scan labels to avoid PFAS may still unknowingly smear it on their faces daily.
PFAS aren’t the only harmful chemicals common in makeup. Hundreds of chemicals are used in beauty products in North America that are banned in Europe. Most of the worst belong to several chemical classes like PFAS, phthalates and antimicrobials. Whole classes of such problematic chemicals should be phased out of cosmetics, rather than banning single chemicals, which leads to substituting one harmful chemical with others that turn out to be similarly harmful. We should also close the holes in labelling requirements.
As an important step in cleaning up cosmetics, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine), and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) are introducing the bipartisan No PFAS in Cosmetics Act, which will ban the whole class of PFAS from makeup. It’s past time to get these harmful and persistent chemicals out of our makeup — and out of our bodies.
Arlene Blum, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a research associate in Chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley, Calif. Rebecca Fuoco, MPH, leads communication at the Green Science Policy Institute.